I had the pleasure of speaking at Jacob’s Well last Sunday as part of their Godflix series. This was the sixth year I shared a message inspired by a movie with their community and it’s always a fun challenge. I may post some of my other Godflix messages in the future, but here’s this year’s message on Disney’s Moana. [If you’d prefer to listen, here’s the podcast.]
There once was a man named Akiva who lived a few thousand years ago. He was a teacher in the Jewish faith, and one foggy night Rabbi Akiva was walking home and missed the turn to his town. He ended up at a military camp and when he arrived at the gate a guard yelled down “who are you and what are you doing here?” Rabbi Akiva was confused about where he was so he said “excuse me?” The guard asked him again, “who are you and what are you doing here?” and this time Akiva responded by asking the guard a somewhat random question; “How much are they paying you?” he asked. The guard was a bit surprised by this question, but he told Akiva how much he was paid, to which Akiva responded: “I’ll pay you twice that much if you come to my house and ask me those two questions every day.”
Like the story of Rabbi Akiva, Moana is a movie about someone going on an adventure and being asked about their identify and purpose.
Moana repeats this mantra throughout the movie: “I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”
She says this over and over, and it reminds me of a line that’s repeated in Prince Bride…
For anyone who hasn’t seen Moana, there are a few characters you should know about other than Moana, starting with her father, who is the chief of the island. He’s afraid of the ocean because of an experience he had when he was younger and he passes along this fear to his entire village, making a rule that “no one is to go beyond the reef.” He wants Moana to become the next chief, a role she would accept by placing her stone on top of the island.
Moana’s grandma is a free spirit and the only one who encourages Moana to follow her passion of sailing the ocean, even after her first attempt didn’t go very well…which is what happened just before this scene:
I love the line “Is there something you want to hear?” Probably because I can relate to knowing what I needed to hear, to the point where I could have written it down and asked someone to read it to me.
Remember Moana’s mantra, “I am Moana of Motunui…” She was practicing this so she could say it to Maui, a demigod who had been trapped on an island by himself for a thousand years. He’s big and strong but his tough exterior is a disguise for his fragile ego. He likes to think of himself as a hero, but his tattoos tell us how he really feels; scared, insecure and powerless without his magic hook.
Moana sails the ocean to find Maui so he can go with her to Te Fiti, the goddess/island who Moana’s people believe is the source of all life.
Maui stole Te Fiti’s heart (which is why he’s been trapped on an island for a thousand year) and he is afraid to go back, but Moana needs his help because there’s a lava monster named Te Ka who they will have to get past along the way.
Those are the characters and storylines you need to know about for now, so before I ruin the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it, let’s take a look at this type of story and consider how they can help us make sense of things in our own lives. To do this we’re going to need the help of a guy named Joseph Campbell.
Campbell was a mythologist, which means he studied stories, and after studying the greatest stories from throughout history, he discovered they all follow a pattern…which he calls the “Hero’s Journey.”
He concluded that all great stories start with a regular person being called to an adventure by a supernatural force, and as you might expect, they have a hard time believing they could do anything special, but with the help of “guides/helpers” they find the courage to travel beyond their known world, facing challenges and discovering their true identity while completing their mission and eventually returning home.
Campbell wrote about all of this in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it has influenced storytellers ever since, including George Lucas, who used it as a blueprint when creating the original Star Wars.
Campbell didn’t believe our lives have meaning on their own, but he knew stories do, which is why he said we love to tell (and hear) stories; they help us interpret our experiences and make meaning of our lives.
Jumping back into the middle of Moana’s story with this in mind, we find our hero lost at sea and ready to quit. She is visited by a vision of her grandma (her guide/helper) who asks her an important question…here’s the scene:
The phrase “I am” has significance in the Bible as a name for God (see Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3), but it also has significance in our own lives because “I am” is a statement about how we see ourselves (often influenced by what others have said about us).
Take a minute to consider the statement “I am __________” and finish the statement with something positive about yourself. (You can start with your name if you need a warm up, but then think of something you’re proud of and want the world to know about you.)
I’m not sure how old Moana is but my guess is she’s around 14, which seems like a prime age for an adventure that requires courage and wonder and curiosity, and maybe even some ignorance, all important qualities for an adventure like the one she goes on.
It might be just me, but it seems like adults often put an expiration date on their dreams, believing that once we reach a certain age we have to settle for a life we don’t want.
It’s easier to chase big dreams when you’re younger and cynicism seems to increase with age, but I believe there are ways we can all embody the spirit – if not the specifics – of the dreams we had as kids in our current lives.
Being an adult is about more than pretending we have things figured out. But first we have to stop wasting so much time and energy pretending we aren’t afraid or confused or lonely or whatever other issues we’re trying to hide from everyone.
We often mislabel our difficult experiences as “failures” instead of opportunities to learn and grow. I say this as much for myself as for you: but if you’re waiting to feel ready for whatever it is you want to do, or until it seems easier, you’ll be waiting forever.
There’s no such thing as a fearless leader.
We all have fears, each and every one of us.
The real heroes are people who face their fears head on.
Near the end of the movie, Maui and Moana come across Te Ka, the lava monster. At first glance, it looks like Moses parting the Red Sea in the Exodus story, but let’s watch the scene and see how they respond…
Maui and Moana were both scared, but instead of seeing Te Ka as the enemy and trying to fight her (which is what Maui tries to do), Moana looks closely and sees her for who she truly is…she then invites Te Ka close to reminds the fire-breathing monster that she is actually good and loving, and she does it with only a whisper.
We live in a world where too many people think the best response to being threatened is to attack or at least make a greater threat; if someone hits you they hit back harder, but as Gandhi famously said, “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”
Moana stood bravely in the tension between fighting and running away and sees her “enemy” as someone worth loving.
Think back to the scene when Moana was alone in the middle of the ocean filled with doubt and ready to quit. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Maybe not in an actual boat on the ocean, but in one way or another we have all experienced the feeling that we just can’t do it…can’t pass the test, can’t get the job, can’t make the relationship work, can’t can’t can’t.
I don’t know what can’t moments you’ve had, but listen again to the words Grandma Tala sang to Moana, but this time hear them for yourself…
“Sometimes the world seems against you, the journey may leave a scar, but scars can heal and reveal just where you are. The people you love will change you, the things you have learned will guide you, and nothing on earth can silence the quiet voice still inside you…do you know who you are?”
We all have a mini Te Ka and Te Fiti inside of us. We’re capable of being monsters and life givers, saints and sinners at the same time. We feel the forces of love and anger, life and death tugging on us all the time, which is why we need to know who we are and we also need people who can help us remember when we forget.
And in case any of you have forgotten or just need to hear it again, this is what God says to you …
I have called you by name and you are mine…
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…when you walk through fire you shall not be burned.
…You are precious in my sight, and I love you. (Isaiah 43)
No matter who you are or what you’ve done, you are a child of God. You are loved and accepted exactly as you are. May this love transform you and restore your heart, may it give you the strength you need to face your fears and live with courage. And may you feel the grace and peace of Jesus within you on the journey. Amen.